I know that I may not be touching on anything novel here when I say that horror comics aren’t a dead art form, but you have to appreciate that people keep saying it after the horror comic was officially dead for a number of years. For a long time I suffered through endlessly cheesy and insipid “horror” themed comics from Marvel and DC both of whom always possessed a respectable amount of monsters and goblins, but no blood and zero realism whatsoever. Even when they evoked the moods of EC Comics, they chose to adamantly steer away from anything grisly or disgusting, thus it was PG horror that felt often like a dry hump for the respectable horror fan.
Their killers were more often vampires, robots, and Frankenstein monsters, the only red we ever saw was on our characters heads, and disembodied limbs were confined to robots and aliens. That’s not horror. That’s not even horrific. EC often had these exact elements, but they had something of an imagination and a foreboding dread that made them feel larger than fiction and fantasy. Marvel and DC attempting horror is clunky when you compare them to the garish genius of EC just understanding horror. They understood the machinations, and devices, and they didn’t need to try too hard to scare us. They also relied on the tropes of horror that concerned karma and comeuppance were more profound in their horror stories than most other companies who were reliant on a gimmicky title.
While I did enjoy “Vampirella” on occasion, the series was never quite the inspiring love letter to storytelling I hoped it would be, which is why I retreated to EC Comics, when I could get them. Often times I had to fish for them because in the nineties when I was deeply rooted in to the comic book bonanza of collecting, and trading and looking for new issues of my favorite heroes, the comics authority code was often in rule, and this left no room for edge or adult material. And the internet was still so new and void of new content, so that was off the table. Thankfully, as with all children of that decade, I turned to older horror goons for my supply of unadulterated carnage and gore. Imagine if you will, a short five year old boy being introduced to comics by his uncle who is shoving stacks of Captain America, and Spider-Man into his lap and suddenly slips in to the pile, a comic of a man holding an axe, and a decapitated head of a woman.
Now envision his gasp and sheer astonishment as he flips through the pages and feels a stir in his head. “What is this? My brain is flush. Horror, awe, disgust, terror, realism, shocking brutality, and my god, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life!” In a world where this five year old is force fed Disney pablum with pat happy endings, and talking animals, EC Comics was a shock to my system, and I think I speak more for every horror comic geek out there when I say that these comics did indeed steal our innocence. And we liked it that way.
That’s what’s missing in this new generation of horror lovers. They’re all so awfully comfortable in the luxury and walls of their internet domain that the art of exploration has been completely pushed in to the background. Having an older relative offer up an old issue of their favorite comic is much more interesting than simply keywording EC Comics in to Google Images database and finding small representations of the EC art from some comic book collecting website. There was a sense of finding treasure in a time before the internet, there was something magical about digging through old stacks of comic books and dusty torn novels with beautifully drawn covers that would elicit gasps and awe from a young promising horror buff. That age has gone the way of the VHS, and bootleg, and the convention tables. Now you can find it all at your fingertip and there’s really no sense of adventure or journey.
It’s so easy and quick, you can’t savor it enough to realize that you’ve reached a point in your life where horror has completely an utterly changed you for the better. That’s exactly what happened to me. The minute something new was put in to my hands I was changed. EC Comics and Tales from the Crypt turned me in to a horror buff wanting more and more and I could never get enough. And everything that I happened across was amazing and rewarding because I had no computer or internet access, so it was all a mini-quest to find the best new movie to explore. There was no Amazon.com to find customer reviews. No Ebay to find an easy mint condition copy of a rare comic from someone in Idaho. There was no DVD burner or blank DVD’s that allowed you touch up and edit movies.
What you found is what you got, and it was something you were proud to own and something you were happy to keep as a prized possession. And once it was gone, it was gone. For a long time EC Comics, and many of its ilk were utterly demonized thanks to that lovely man comic aficionados know and speak ill of in the same vein as Senator McCarthy: Dr. Frederic Wertham, a precursor of the McCarthy era, who cashed in on the public hysteria of the fifties and sixties where the American public feared communists, bombs coming down on us, and the threat of homosexuality! By god! Wait, am I still talking about the 50’s or the new millennium? The only dangers to the innocence was the imagination and fantasies of a man who viewed superheroics as damaging to the youth. Back then there was a source to homosexuality and it had to be feared.
And for a long time I had to endure looking at the Comics Authority Code for every single issue I put my hands on knowing full well that they were doing the thinking for me, and they were preventing me from killing and destroying our society. Of course it never prevented me from stumbling on to issues of Fangoria, and watching any splatter horror film I wanted, because my parents subscribed to the idea that teaching us the difference between what’s reality and what’s fantasy was a good way to parent and not step back and let some committee do it for them. So, what sets us apart from those people fifty years ago who bought into Wertham’s hackery? Why are comics now much more lenient than they were thirty years ago when companies such as Marvel and DC had to conform to the comic’s code where blood was not allowed to be red, and given the absurd codename of “Plasma,” and “Essence”?
If you ever pay attention to action series in the nineties, the heroes never land punches, and they never say murder. Though it’s an action of the censors, I like to think the Comics code had a hand in that somewhat. Now with the somewhat enlightenment of a new generation the comics authority code is a thing of the past and we’re watching horror comics rise from the shadows in droves and suffice it to say it’s fun to be a horror fan and a comic book lover. We’re given delightful fiction like “Hack/Slash,” and brilliant zombie tales like “The Walking Dead,” as well in a sense of irony the superheroes from Marvel and DC have been depicted as zombies and vampires ripping the guts out of their victims as a form of thumbing their boney noses at the previous generation who were convinced this form of fiction would completely destroy the youth.
And who can forget works like “30 Days of Night,” the mini-series for icons like Jason, Freddy, and Chucky, and of course Spawn, which made waves in the nineties and somewhat saturated itself in the late decade. I can’t endorse “The Walking Dead” enough. It’s consistently brilliant, and absolutely excellent. Every generation has to have a scapegoat, doesn’t it? And what with the rise of video games we’re right back where we started where most people are convinced computer imagery depicting acts of violence will corrupt the impressionable youth, and never quite pinning the blame on the parents who most times should be more than aware of what they’re kids are up to. Now with the dead of the comic book, and the rise of the interactive video game and technology, comic books are now given room to do more and offer more variety for anyone in to the horror genre.
Zombies, aliens, serial killers, slashers, witches, et al. all of which have bred a new generation of comic book lovers, and a new breed of horror lovers, all of whom appreciate the art of storytelling and are smart enough to realize this doesn’t corrupt you unless you allow it to. Are we more enlightened now than those puritanical times? Are these companies more open to change and realism? Or is the economy in such a downslide they’re throwing all their chips on the table and going for broke? I mean, we still fear terrorism, we still frighten of bombs coming from the skies to end us, and we still think homosexuality is much scarier than poverty and war, but why is today so different than yesterday? It if bleeds, it leads, I guess is a phrase not just the media applies to all of their content. Sex and violence sell in America, we’re fascinated by it. Some of us are even obsessed with it. And we’ve come to a point in society where gore is on top order, but sex be damned.
With the abolishment of the Comic’s code, horror and its inevitable turn of the tide in comics was bound to rise once again. I’ve always considered the genre to be cyclical like everything in life; it’s a constantly transforming genre that takes its time to boil. What may not be popular today may be popular next month. And vice versa. And now we’re at a point where horror comics have gained a slow resurgence packing a powerful punch with series that are just utterly fantastic, perhaps thanks to our willingness to be rid of old ideologies and breaking down what we once considered taboos. This, of course, ushered in a gradual resurgence of horror comics that snuck up on us like grim death and initiated our yearnings for the good old days of EC.
While folks like Wertham sought out to destroy the genre and all of the content EC offered its audiences, its influence was never quite lost on the generations and after a long horrible stretch of absolute nothing in the nineties, the new millennium has offered up a brand new renaissance with folks like Robert Kirkman, Steve Niles and Tim Seely, all of whom have fueled the invigoration and allowed companies to revive EC Comics, celebrate its anarchy, and give the youth a look at what was once completely taboo and almost illegal.